By Melissa A. Case, Yvonne Garcia, Yazmine Contreras, Alejandra Garcia and Cristal N. Spradling
The Ku Klux Klan in El Paso? Yes, it did exercise some influence in the city in the 1920's. With their white sheets and hooded faces, the Klan settled in El Paso and affected the city politically and in religious and race issues as well.
Image caption: The Ku Klux Klan marches in a parade in downtown El Paso around 1920. Photo courtesy of Leon Metz and Frank Mangan.
After the Civil War, six Irish Americans began the organization as a social club for ex-confederate soldiers from the poverty-stricken town of Pulaski, Tennessee. The name may have derived from the Greek word for circle or band, kuklos. Its numbers grew rapidly as Southerners attempted to regain control of their region. Nathan Bedford Forrest, legendary Confederate cavalry officer, became the Klan's first Imperial Wizard, establishing new chapters all over the South. With over a million members by 1870, the Klan's purpose became political. The KKK believed in native white, Protestant supremacy, and aimed its invective at Jews, Catholics, anti-Prohibitionists and any person of liberal or radical views.
The Klan's mission, to prevent newly enfranchised black Southerners from putting Republicans in power in the Southern states, soon came to be carried out with hatred, evil and pride. Its members, sworn to secrecy, wore white robes, pointed hoods and masks and adopted the burning cross as their symbol. They were most active during elections, when their nighttime rides to murder, rape, beat, and warn were designed to overcome Republican majorities in their states. In 1872, Forrest left the Klan, denying responsibility for the violent turn the Klan had taken. By this time, the Klan had lost its earlier power as segregation laws took effect in the South.
In April 1868, the Klan appeared in northeast Texas, terrorizing and murdering freedmen, burning houses and crops and intimidating officials. By 1871, the Klan officially ceased to exist because of national laws against secret conspiracy and the refusal of the South to tolerate violence.
In 1915, William J. Simmons reorganized the national Klan at Stone Mountain, Georgia, to fight new threats, especially immigration and social ills. By 1922, Texas had as many as 150,000 Klan members, and by 1924, Texas had more Klansmen in public office than any other state.
El Paso became vulnerable to the Klan's efforts at creating conflict within the city. The impact of the Mexican Revolution and World War I were still strongly felt in El Paso during the 1920's. El Paso's experiences during the Mexican Revolution were different from those of any other city in the United States because it was the only large border city at the time. Frightened by the confusion and anti-American sentiment in Mexico, many Anglos became prejudiced against Mexicans, feeling that they had no place in an American city. After World War I, thousands of new Anglos arrived in El Paso.
Many of these newcomers were natives of the racially intolerant South. So with these hostile attitudes the border was vulnerable for the Ku Klux Klan to establish a chapter in El Paso.
In May 1921, Klan recruiter C. C. Kellogg set up office in the Sheldon Hotel. By late summer 1921, the KKK had established the Frontier Klan No. 100 in El Paso. Besides racial problems, issues concerning law and order and social morality provided the Klan the opportunity to recruit law-abiding and respectable citizens, including attorneys, physicians, bankers and businessmen.
The Klan also controlled members of the Herald Post's editorial staff, allowing for the society to print its beliefs in the newspaper. Members were able to publish one editorial on their goals in El Paso and how they would make El Paso flourish.
In public statements, the Klan claimed it had a purpose: "to make El Paso a better and cleaner city, a better place in which to live and rear our children." The Klan claimed to be against crime of all types. The social ills of El Paso, which included prostitution and gambling, were the first that the Klan promised to eliminate. Other crimes the Klan vowed to attack were home burglaries and car thefts. Juveniles drinking across the border and returning late at night were other targets. Klan members would record names or take pictures to show the parents of the young people.
Their concerns weren't limited to social ills. The Klan was also concerned with the political issues in the community. In order to arouse enthusiasm in one school board election, the Klan planned to parade through town dressed in sheets and hooded masks. They had to be threatened with jail before they would cancel their plans.
The Klan's main reason for the entry into the school board election was their belief that the Roman Catholic Church was trying to gain control of the public schools. Samuel J. Isaacks, a well-known attorney, clearly asserted his position on Catholics to his listeners. He said, "This is a country of religious tolerance, but not a country where any sect can come in and run our educational system."
In April, the ticket of Klan members consisting of Charles S. Ward, Hal Gambrell and Isaacks beat W. H. Burges, U. S. Stewart and J. B. Brady, gaining control of the school board. Many residents and other anti-Klan organizations were stunned to see the final results of the election. This election marked the high point of Klan power in El Paso politics and was the first indication that the Frontier Klan had the popular vote.
Since they were free to make changes within the school system, Isaacks suggested changing the names of the schools to commemorate Texas heroes. Highland Park became Fanin, El Paso High became Sam Houston High School (later changed back due to strong protest), Manhattan Heights became Crockett, and Grandview became Rusk. The schools that were under construction were named Austin and Bowie and Burleson Elementary.
The school board held secret meetings to vote out two school principals and other staff members who were Catholic. Even a librarian, Edith Cony, was dismissed because she had protested the removal of a Catholic encyclopedia from the library. Many people started to grow concerned about the Klan taking over. Nevertheless, in March 1922, the Klan initiated 300 men near Kern Place. After the initiation, Klansmen drove up Scenic Drive on Mount Franklin, where they burned a wooden cross. About 3,500 El Pasoans joined the Klan in the few years of its existence here.
Lawyer William H. Fryer, a personal enemy of Samuel J. Isaacks, made a major assault on the Klan. At the Odd Fellows Hall, the Catholic Fryer pointed his finger at the hooded audience and said, "I know who you are and one day you will be unmasked before the public." In October 1922, Fryer filed an injunction to remove four candidates from ballots in the upcoming election who had sworn allegiance to the Invisible Empire of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan's membership roster and other materials were made public, exposing lists of outstanding citizens who had taken the Klan's secret oath. Fryer accused the Klan of believing their oath took precedence over the Constitution and the United States. Later, Fryer dropped the action since his purpose -- to expose membership -- had been accomplished.
Image caption: William H. Fryer - 1929 Photo courtesy of UTEP Library Special Collections via digie.org
Other anti-Klan residents followed members to secret meetings. They wrote their license plate numbers down, eventually identifying these members to the community.
Others who opposed the Klan included El Paso Times editor James Black. Backed by his paper, Black called the Klan "anarchists and public enemies" who "seize the purpose of the State." Police Chief Peyton J. Edward said he would do everything in his power to oppose Klan actions and dismissed officers who were members.
By February 1923, the Klan was soundly defeated at the polls when El Pasoans elected anti-Klan candidate R. M. Dudley mayor over Klan member P. E. Gardner. In April, the Klan also lost the school board elections. The Klan's member base rapidly decreased to a handful of individual advocates and the KKK eventually retreated from El Paso. Many residents believed that it was important to keep good relations with the resident Mexicans for business purposes, leading to the weakening of the Klan.
The Ku Klux Klan's membership dwindled in the state as it did in El Paso in the late 1920s. The Klan became active again in the 1950s and 1960s once the civil rights movement gained impetus. Among the largest groups still active in Texas are the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and the White Camellia Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. In South Texas, the Vietnamese were the targets of Klan violence in the 1980s, and in the 1990s various groups of the Klan united with neo-Nazis. The influence of the Klan in El Paso lives on in the names of several city schools, but little outward sign of any other influence exists.